Saturday, October 6, 2012

Feeding with Love and Respect

I just saw this video on facebook and had to post here and comment.  The video has over a million views on YouTube and is quite cute at first blush. Dad seems to be a genuinely engaged and loving father, and it is shown as a humorous and cute way to get an infant to eat his solids: oh the lengths we go as parents.

However, I really had a visceral reaction to it: My bone is that it really is, at its core, a disrespectful way of approaching feeding.  Perhaps I'm a wet blanket about this video, but it's a bit of an issue for me when I see parents coercing, forcing, or otherwise manipulating their child into eating.  The dad in the video seems loving and involved; he strikes me as being devoted and caring.  But having worked with families whose young children were coerced, either overtly or through distraction, to eat, it really bothers me.  Most of us worry that our kids won't eat enough, but eating, just like every milestone, takes time to develop.  For me the most important feeding skill a child learns in the early months is that they are in control of what goes into their bodies.  Distracting them with music or toys shows a lack of faith that the child will learn to eat what and how much they need to eat to grow well.  It sends the message that we do not trust our children with their own bodies.  And it sends the message that how much you eat is of more importance than the development of eating skills --kids will generally eat what they need, even if it is not as much as parents want them to eat.

Maybe this music-video-eating was a funny and accidental discovery.  Maybe it was an occasional thing.  Maybe they do this ritual every meal.  Whatever the case, I am really not fussy about having intake be a higher priority for me than it is for the child.

Particularly when infants and children are underweight, it is easy to get into a viscious cycle of doing whatever we need to do to get food in.  But in the long run, manipulating a young child to eat does not give them the power or control to become healthy eaters as toddlers, preschoolers, teenagers, and adults.

Back to the video:  this kid is cute, for sure.  And it is amusing (in a way) how much more this child eats with the video on.  But is he really involved in eating?  Or is he passively taking the food dad gives him?  Is he any closer to becoming a competent eater?  Does he 'need' to eat that much?  What happens next week when the video isn't enough?

To be sure, a child this age would not be independent eating, but developing competence is different: competence doesn't exclude cooperation, support, or guidance.  I am sure that if the video weren't played, they would have a fussy little guy (and probably a bit hungry too) for a few days, but if dad just put the spoon, or soft pieces of banana or avocado, on the tray, I speculate this little guy would soon become more interested in the food itself (which is the main point of sitting down to eat, isn't it?).

To paraphrase Ellyn Satter, author of "Feeding with Love and Good Sense" and "How to Get Your Kid to Eat...But Not Too Much", our job as parents is to provide good food and a reasonable mealtime routine; our kids' jobs are to decide if and how much to eat.  That's a division of responsibility I feel strongly about in helping our children become healthy and competent eaters.

(Postscript:  There are some effective family-oriented approaches to eating disorders that do take some of the responsibility of eating away from kids.  I view this as quite different because the eating disorder has interfered with the child's ability to take on this responsibility.  I wonder, however, what contribution early eating experiences have on the development of eating disorders.  Would they be less prevalent if we didn't try to control our children's intakes from the get-go?)

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